The Chess Heroes Project

If you look at any chess bookstall you’ll find a lot of books written for young beginners. I should know: I’ve written several myself. You’ll also find a lot of books written for tournament players: some aimed at lower level players, some at higher level players.

There’s very little, though, which will take you from being a novice to being a serious competitive player (about 100 ECF/1450 FIDE). There are many sources which contain useful material but nothing putting it all together.

I now produce my own coaching materials, based on nearly 50 years’ experience teaching chess and a database of nearly 17000 games played, mostly at this level, at Richmond Junior Chess Club between 1976 and 2006.

I believe that a complete course designed to take novices to serious competitive players should:

  • be written for teachers, parents and older readers, not for young children, who lack the maturity to teach themselves at this level.
  • cover all aspects of the game thoroughly: openings, middle games and endings.
  • be based on what actually happens in games played at this level, not what happens in grandmaster games, nor everything that might happen.
  • provide all the knowledge and skills required to succeed in adult or higher level junior competitions.
  • teach each aspect of the game in a logical, structured, step-by-step way.
  • develop chess thinking skills by explaining how to go about solving different types of puzzle and playing different types of position.

The course starts with four instructional books:

 

  • CHECKMATES FOR HEROES (eBook published on Amazon Autumn 2019) takes students from simple one-move checkmates through to more complex examples involving mates in 2, 3, 4 or more moves. There are more than 500 checkmate puzzles to be solved.
  • CHESS TACTICS FOR HEROES (eBook published on Amazon Autumn 2019) teaches basic tactical ideas such as trapping pieces, forks, pins, skewers, discovered attacks and deflections before showing you how you can put ideas together to make combinations. Again, there are more than 500 tactics puzzles for you.
  • CHESS OPENINGS FOR HEROES (eBook scheduled for publication early 2020) starts with general opening principles, moving on to look at recurring tactical ideas in the opening such as queen forks and tactics on the e-file. We then look at several strategic ideas which are seen across different openings. Now it’s time to look at the most popular openings starting 1. e4 e5. We then move onto a general introduction to positional ideas before considering other replies to 1. e4 and other first moves for White.
  • CHESS ENDINGS FOR HEROES (eBook scheduled for publication early 2020) begins by teaching the basic KQ v K and KR v K mates. We then look at the most important KP v K positions before moving onto more complex pawn endings. Then we look in turn at queen endings, rook endings and minor piece endings. As well as puzzles there are positions to play through to enable students to develop their endgame technique.

There will then follow two books of coaching materials designed to reinforce and expand the lessons learnt in these four volumes, as well as introducing more advanced and complex ideas.

CHESS PUZZLES FOR HEROES will test and develop tactical skills.

  • Positions will include checkmates, combinations winning material, defensive questions, questions where you have to avoid making a blunder, opening questions, endgame questions, but, as in a real game, you won’t know exactly what you’re looking for.
  • There will be a mixture of multiple choice and open choice questions, to develop different methods of thinking about chess positions.
  • There will be space to write down, either using words or variations, the reasons for your choice, with extra points available for good answers.

Provisional chapter headings:

HEADS OR TAILS (which of two moves would you choose?)

ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS (which of three moves would you choose?)

TRICK OR TREAT (is this move good or bad?)

SPOT THE BLUNDER (in this position the player to move made a blunder: can you guess what it was?)

FREE CHOICE (simple ‘find the best move’ puzzles)

CHESS GAMES FOR HEROES uses the familiar ‘How Good is Your Chess’ method to test a wide range of chess skills.

  • Exercises will be either short games or short extracts from longer games, with about 12-15 questions each.
  • At various points you are asked what move you would play: points are awarded for good guesses. There will also, in some cases, be bonus (what if…) questions.
  • At the end of each game you get a rating.
  • The full scoring system is suitable for private tuition, or for more serious chess clubs where 45-60 minutes is available for lessons.
  • For shorter lessons, for instance in school chess clubs, you should ignore the scoring system: instead, hands up and a point for the first student to select the best move.

Provisional sections:

Short games selected to reinforce general opening principles and simple tactics

Games grouped by opening to reinforce the lessons learnt in CHESS OPENINGS FOR HEROES

Extracts from longer games designed to teach specific middle game themes (king side attack, minority attack, IQP positions etc)

Extracts from longer games designed to teach endings and reinforce the lessons learnt in CHESS ENDINGS FOR HEROES

In theory, any number of books in these series could be written using the same template. The first CHESS PUZZLES FOR HEROES and CHESS GAMES FOR HEROES books are expected to be available late 2020 or early 2021.

For further information on the CHESS HEROES project please contact Richard James (richard@chessheroes.uk).

Minichess Principles

Many people believe that chess is the greatest, most beautiful, most exciting game in the world. All children should have the opportunity to learn how to play.

Strategy games, preferably played in person rather than on a screen, should play an important part in all children’s lives.

Most children are able to learn the basic moves of the pieces by the age of 5 or 6.

However, chess, by its nature, is more suitable for older children and adults than for younger children: it requires the ability to handle complex abstract reasoning as well as exceptional executive function skills.

Chess is not the only game you can play with a chess set any more than bridge is the only game you can play with a pack of cards. There are many simpler games available which are more suitable for children of primary school age.

Most young children will make little progress at chess without significant proactive parental support.

Having said that, some very bright and mature children with supportive parents can derive a lot of benefit and enjoyment from taking chess seriously and playing competitively from an early age.

Children who start competitive chess young are more likely to become grandmasters: children who start competitive chess when they’re older are more likely to continue playing as adults.

Traditional primary school chess clubs serve little purpose beyond providing low level entertainment and childminding services because they encourage parents to sign their children up without helping them at home.

For primary school chess to be successful, schools need to separate the three aspects of chess: learning chess, social chess and competitive chess.

Having said that, some primary schools are successful in promoting chess proactively, ensuring all children have the opportunity to learn chess and getting parents involved in supporting their children.

According to meta-analysis of multiple studies, there is little evidence that putting chess on the curriculum produces a unique and long-term improvement in academic performance.

The social benefits of encouraging chess for older children are, in my opinion, more important than the perceived academic benefits of encouraging chess for younger children.

Strategy games, including chess, can be exceptionally valuable for a wide range of children with special needs: for example children on the autistic spectrum, children with ADHD, children with dyspraxia.

We believe that, although chess naturally attracts more boys than girls, there’s no reason why girls can’t play as well as boys, and we’d like to see many more girls taking part in chess competitions: therefore we encourage schools and parents to introduce girls to minichess.

Our principles, therefore, are:

  1. Encourage as many children as possible to learn how the pieces move and play simple chess-based games (the MINICHESS project). We promote minichess in schools, youth groups and other organisations. We promote community minichess clubs in libraries and elsewhere.

 

  1. Support competitive chess for parents who want to fast track their children through children’s chess clubs, competitions, private tuition and coaching materials (the CHESS HEROES project)

 

  1. Encourage older children to learn chess, play social chess and participate in competitions.

The Gift of Chess

Here’s an article I wrote for my chessKIDS academy website eight years ago, in 2010.

I’d probably write it in a slightly different way today, but, for now, I’ll repeat it without comment.

————————————————————————————————————————

THE GIFT OF CHESS

Dedicated to my parents, Howard James (1919-1998) and Betty James née Smith (1921-2010)

It was fifty years ago, almost to the day as I write this, Christmas 1960. I was ten years old. Amongst the other presents on the Christmas tree was a plastic chess set, red and white pieces in a blue case.

What possessed them to think that chess would interest me I’ll never know. There was no chess background in the family. My father just about knew how the pieces moved while my mother knew nothing at all.

You see, I was a strange, silent, sad and solitary child. At home my behaviour infuriated my father and puzzled my mother, while at school I never spoke to teachers and rarely to children, mostly standing on my own in the playground, forever the target of bullies.

Today, children like this, and I’ve met and taught several, are diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, but in my day there was no such diagnosis and no understanding.

Anyway, my father soon taught me the moves, with the help of the instructions that came with the set, and we started to play. Soon I could beat him, after which he wouldn’t play me again.

That July I reached the age of 11 so it was time to move to a new school. I was fortunate enough to have won a scholarship to a school in London, and my journey every morning and afternoon involved two train rides. On the first day I took my chess set with me and, for the first time, played a game against another boy. He took all my pieces and mated me with two rooks.

Throughout my first few years there my chess set acted as a communication tool, through which I was able to relate to other children. I played on the train to and from school and still remember the thrill when, towards the end of my first year there, I beat a boy in the year above me for the first time.

At that point my parents, seeing my growing addiction to chess, decided I needed more help and bought me a chess book, which was to be the first of many. It’s on the desk beside me now as I write this.

Through that book I learnt about chess notation, openings, middle-games and endings, and about the world champions of the past. Chess was placed in context. While continuing to play at school I spent a lot of my spare time playing games against myself and writing down the moves in an exercise book, which, sadly, I didn’t keep. I also spent a lot of time in libraries, borrowing every chess book from every library within reach.

For my Christmas present in 1964 I received a year’s subscription to the British Chess Magazine. Every month I’d play through all the games, and, on the first of the month, wait eagerly for the next issue. By the end of 1965, five years after learning the moves, I could beat everyone in my form at school so my parents thought I should move on. The London Junior Chess Championships took place (as they still do) during the Christmas holidays, so I was entered for my first tournament. I did quite well in the Under 16 Reserve section, so my mother made enquiries about chess clubs in the area, and got my father to take me along to Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club, which at that time met in a dingy room above a pub. 44 years on, I’m still a member and play regularly for their teams.

In college I got involved in chess administration, and, on leaving college, I had the chance to start teaching chess to children, and, a few years later, to write about chess. But that’s another story, which I’ll tell another time.

I spent 15 years helping run chess clubs for young children in primary and prep schools. It soon became clear to me that, if I had learnt the moves at the age of 7 and been thrown straight into a semi-competitive environment, there’s no way I would have maintained an interest in the game. The only children who do well are those who receive significant help at home, and my parents would have been unable to give me that.

In these days, where everything has to be faster, louder and brighter than ever before, we are pushing children too fast too soon, in chess as well as in many other ways. If you start something slightly too late you can catch up, but if you start something slightly too early you can be put off for life.

I’ve always been painfully aware that chess not only changed but probably saved my life. Without the outlet that chess provided as a way to meet and make friends with like-minded people I would have found the world very difficult to cope with.

So that’s why I’ve devoted my life to teaching chess to young children, and why I’ve spent 10 years (so far) developing this website. Nothing other than chess would – or could – have had the same effect on me. I’m passionate about ensuring that every child has the opportunity to learn chess, but also about ensuring that every child, and every parent and teacher, has access to coaching materials and advice to enable them to get the most out of the game.

Remember, it was 8 months after learning the moves that I first played another kid, and 5 years before I first played in a tournament. Is it really best to do what we’re doing now: teaching children the moves one week and putting them in a tournament the next week?

 

Another Open Day

Continuing last week’s blog post, yesterday I went along to the second open day.

There were probably half as many children there as last week (I assume the presentation in assembly hadn’t happened this time) with a good mix of boys and girls, and of different ages. Some of the children were already members of the chess club, while a few others had been members in the past. Most could play a bit but there were a few who wanted to learn.

They’re not now going to be able to repeat the exercise next week as they’re filming for a Christmas production, but they’re planning on promoting chess once every half term in future.

It’s a step in the right direction towards splitting the three functions of primary schools chess: teaching beginners, providing facilities for social chess and providing a club for children wanting to play competitive chess.

 

 

Open Day

Following last week’s visit to Oxford, the following day I asked the members of one of my school chess clubs how they could get more children in the school interested in chess. Some of them suggested running an open day to promote chess to the whole school.

This week the children told me they’d had an open day that morning. The teachers involved in the club and one of the club members spoke about chess in morning assembly, and at lunchtime they invited anyone interested into a classroom, splitting them between children who couldn’t play at all, children who knew some of the moves and children who could play a complete game. They had 41 children in total, 26 boys and 15 girls (there’s only one girl in the school club).

They’re going to do the same thing again the next two weeks. I said I’d come along for free and bring some copies of Chess for Kids to show the children. I’ll also write a letter for them to take home to their parents explaining how they can help and advertising my books, websites & coaching services.

The teachers were happy with this, and also hoped that there would be enough interest to run a beginners’ club next term, while keeping the current club for children who know all the rules. They were also interested in the idea of running an inter-class tournament at the end of term. I suggested four players per team representing each class from Yr3 (7-8 year olds) to Yr6 (10-11 year olds), with at least one boy and one girl in each team.

I’ll post again to let you know what happens next.

 

Using the King and Queen Checkmate to teach Algorithms

An algorithm is a sequenced set of instructions. All dynamic computer programs are algorithms. If you’re cooking a meal, assembling some flat pack furniture, or setting a digital chess clock, you’re following an algorithm. It should be a clear and unambiguous description of how to produce a delicious plate of food or a cupboard for your chess books.

You always need a plan when you’re playing chess. In endings in particular, concrete plans are important. You’ll very often develop and follow an algorithm to achieve your aim.

All chess endings are, in effect, minichess games, as they use a subset of the pieces, and so are ideal learning tools. Perhaps the most important minichess game of all is King and Queen against King. It’s absolutely vital that every ‘big chess’ player can do this quickly and efficiently while avoiding stalemate. If you follow an algorithm it’s not so hard.

Here’s one possible algorithm, taken from Chess Endings for Heroes.

  1. Place your queen one row away from the enemy king. Whenever he moves towards the side, again move your queen to the next row.
  1. Place your king two rows away from the enemy king.
  1. Force the king towards the edge of the board. Every time he moves towards the edge place your queen on the next row.
  1. When the black king reaches the edge move your king towards him, keeping two rows away, until you can get checkmate. Remember to put your queen in place first to avoid stalemate.

Many children prefer an alternative algorithm, which is also explained in Chess Endings for Heroes.

Place your queen a knight’s move away from the black king. Then keep on doing the same thing until he is stuck on the side of the board. Just make sure you don’t stalemate him in the corner. Then approach with your king until you’re close enough to get checkmate. (You might well think this is not sufficiently clear.)

There are several ways to run competitions using the king and queen checkmate. Here’s one idea. Start with a white king and queen, and a black king. Black chooses the starting position of the pieces (with the black king not in check). White wins by checkmating the black king within 15 moves (you only count the white moves). You might also want to play that illegal moves lose, so White can capture the black king if it moves into check. Black wins by surviving 15 moves, by getting stalemated, or by capturing the white queen.

Alternatively, take it in turns to play White. Count the moves: the winner is the player who gets checkmate more quickly.

Get children to write their own algorithms, for example to plan checkmate with two rooks. Or, for a harder task, to plan checkmate with king and rook against king. These tasks involve both language and mathematical skills so are great for schools.

 

 

Using Checkmate Puzzles to Teach Scientific Method

A lot of rather vague and unsubstantiated claims are made about chess improving children’s thinking skills.

I prefer to take a different approach: to teach very specific thinking skills through chess puzzles and activities.

One thing I do is teach Scientific Method though checkmate puzzles.

  1. Consider the facts
  2. Create a hypothesis
  3. Test your hypothesis
  4. Either accept or reject your hypothesis
  5. If you reject it, create a better hypothesis using the additional facts you now have

I might start with puzzles where I just ask whether or not the position is checkmate. All my pupils have to do is Step 3. They have to ask four questions. Is it check? Can the king move to a safe square? Can I block the check? Can I capture the checking piece? If the answers are ‘Yes, No, No, No’ you accept the hypothesis, otherwise you reject it.

If I set a puzzle where my students have to find a mate in one move they have to go through the complete process.

  1. Consider the facts: the fact is that there’s a mate in 1
  2. Create a hypothesis: that move x is the solution
  3. Test move x to see whether or not it really is mate
  4. If it is, write down the answer
  5. If it’s not checkmate try another move: if, for example, the king can move to e4, you can create a better hypothesis by choosing a move which controls e4.

Here’s a simple example taken from Checkmates for Heroes:

minichess3

You might start by looking at Qf6+. Black has several ways to get out of check. There’s Re7, Kc7, Kc8 or Ke8. So let’s look for something else. Qh8+ is a better try. Now Black can’t block or stay on the back rank. But it still doesn’t work: Black has Kc7 or Ke7. So try Qb8+ instead. Close, but not quite good enough: Ke7 still gets out of check.

You might then notice the rook on b1 and try Rb8+. This time it is checkmate. Black cannot capture, block or move to a safe square.

In a classroom you might move on to look at other areas where you might use scientific method, and explain how scientists work. Can your students use this thinking skill in their science lessons? In any other lessons? In any other aspects of their life?